Healthier Convenience Options: Frozen Dinners

by in Healthy Tips, February 2, 2009

Whipping up an effortless dinner in minutes is tempting, but that often means relying on frozen pre-packaged meals. Are there healthy options? I perused the freezer section of my supermarket to see what I could find.

Buyer Beware
The biggest problem with most ready-to-eat meals is the large amount of preservatives needed to keep them fresh. The sodium content in many prepared foods is much higher than if you were to cook the food yourself. Too much sodium can aggravate blood pressure conditions and cause water retention. Heart disease and stroke are also concerns. The daily recommendation for sodium is less than 2300 milligrams per day (which is about one teaspoon of salt).

I wasn’t surprised to see many of the conventional frozen dinners I checked had loads of sodium. It was more of a shock to see that they were also filled with fat! For example, a Hungry Man Classic Fried Chicken Dinner added up to 790 calories, 40 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat and 1940 milligrams of sodium per serving (and remember that’s two-thirds of your daily sodium just in one meal). Of course, the name — Hungry Man — warns you to expect a calorie overload. But even Stouffer’s small Chicken Asiago Panini has 460 calories, 22 grams of fat and 40% of sodium for the day, which is a lot for a little sandwich. Many of these foods also have long ingredient lists, with numerous things that I could not pronounce (never a good sign).

Healthier Frozen Options
There are lighter alternatives, and I came across a few more impressive brands of frozen dinners. Of course, they still contain their fair share of sodium and preservatives, but less than many other options. Kashi makes a Black Bean Mango vegan entrée (that means there’s no dairy in it), which contains 340 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat and 430 milligrams of sodium; Chicken Pasta Pomodoro has 280 calories and 470mg of sodium. Amy’s offers a variety of “light in sodium” meals and uses some organic ingredients.

Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine are two of the leaders in healthier frozen meals and offer some options with moderate sodium and lower calories. Their portions are small, however, and will likely leave you hungry. Also, to keep calories low, they often replace fat with sugar and additional preservatives so review the ingredients carefully.

Birds Eye Steamfresh Meals for Two is a new kid in the freezer section (you may have seen their commercials lately). There are a ton of variations depending on the flavor. Some options had only 290 calories but 1290mg of sodium where others were much lower in sodium, but higher in fat. The good news is nutrition info for these and most other brands are available on their websites so you can narrow things down before you hit the store.

The Bottom Line
With our busy schedules, sometimes you need a little help from the freezer section and that’s okay — just don’t regularly rely on completely pre-made dishes. Add frozen vegetables and pastas to fresh ingredients when possible. When you do have time to cook, make extra of things — spaghetti sauce, chili, casseroles and soups — to pop in the freezer. You’ll have your own “frozen dinners” (preservative-free) ready in no time.

Wondering about canned foods?
Learn what to shop for >>

Are there any foods you’ve tried and would recommend?

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Comments (18)

  1. Valentina202 says:

    Thanks for the great info. on frozen foods. I know what to look for now, when I can’t spare the time to cook a meal.

  2. Harold Thibodeaux says:

    I have an allergy to yeast in all forms. Yeast, yeast extract or autolyzed yeast is used in all of frozen meal. Kashi is the only one who does not use yeast products but adds wine to some of their meals which prevents guys like me from enjoying them with my allergy. So individuals with food allergies need to read the ingredient list on all canned and frozen meals.

  3. Erika says:

    This was a great read. I do a lot of cooking in my house but with the frozen foods who would have known they have that much salt in them. I think I will try using more spices and less frozen meals altogether.

  4. frankduffey says:

    I am on SSDI and While I like Stoffer's I cant afford to buy those all the time, I have had to buy whats on sale and that was Banquet Frozen diners for $1.00 at Super Wall Mart they have the best prices on a lot of grocery items that I buy every week, I was going to Albertson's but the prices were higher than Wal Marts so I drive across town here and buy more for my money, I just try to stay in the Grocery dept that way I wont buy new clothes or something not on my list, I do have a smaller Wal Mart right by my house but they dont have a grocery but they do have regular items like cat food cereal or dry goods even milk at the same prices. When I have the money I like to buy Marie Chandlers Frozen Diners.

  5. Lena says:

    I wanted to buy some tv dinners for my Mom but didn't because even the Lean Cuisine had too much sodium. So I will buy fresh frozen vegetables & fix a lean meat when I am in a pinch & don't have a regular home cooked meal for her. I too would purchase more tv dinners if they had less sodium & fat. I do occasionally buy Boston Market meatloaf for my young men but cringe when I look at the nutrition label.

  6. Karen says:

    I like Amy's frozen foods when they are on sale

  7. Karen Brown says:

    Oh, that is SOO good I can't believe it's a frozen dinner! :)

  8. Helen says:

    I totally agree! By error, my mom wasn't wearing her glasses and bought low sodium canned vegetable and even Campbell's soup. Ugh! They were so bad, even adding table salt was not an option. I try to use fresh or frozen veggies and will stick to the original red & white Campbell's!

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